Every second, the equivalent of a truckload of fabric is thrown into a landfill or burned, leaching chemicals (such as dye) or non-biodegradable synthetic fabrics (such as polyester) into the ground. Every year, roughly USD 500 billion of barely worn clothing is discarded, even though manufacturing these items takes a tremendous toll on the environment – using coal and petroleum to create synthetic fibers and pesticides to grow natural ones, including cotton. At this rate, by 2050 the fashion industry will account for a quarter of the global average consumption of fossil fuels, according to a report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2017.
Yet, of the nearly 100 million tonnes of textiles produced worldwide every year, a staggeringly small one percent, or 980,000 tonnes, is all that gets recycled. In 2018, roughly 143,000 tonnes – 15 percent of the global total – were recycled in the Italian city of Prato. This Tuscan city 24 km from Florence is the world’s capital of post-consumer textile processing, which makes it very appealing for big brands in search of more sustainable production models.
“Since the mid-19th century, Prato has been recycling rags from all over the world with advanced technologies and investments in the most innovative machinery,” explains Fabrizio Tesi, who co-owns Comistra with his sister Cinzia. This 100-year-old company in Prato produces fabrics containing 90 percent recycled textiles. Tesi is also president of A.S.T.R.I, the Italian Association of Recycled Textiles, founded two years ago to promote Italian excellence and Prato’s nearly two centuries of transforming textile waste, especially wool, into resources. ASTRI came into being thanks to the efforts of entrepreneurs in the sector who were committed to quality regeneration. They have the support of the street vendors, wool mills, raw material traders and other workers who spin, dye and finish clothes in the most important textile district of Europe. Prato counts roughly 7,200 companies, almost 40,000 employees and a turnover of five billion euros (USD 5.6 billion) per year.
“From my grandfather Alfredo to my father Rolando and my mother Giovanna, our family has always had a strong vocation for innovation. This led us to create a factory that is unique in the world, where we regenerate and transform textile by-products and post-consumer materials into a fabric called ‘mechanical wool’ or ‘Prato wool.’ It’s a recycled wool of very high quality created without new sheepskin, and that boasts the Global Recycled Standard certification,” says Tesi.
Comistra sells its fabrics to large fashion brands such as Armani, Banana Republic, Zara and H&M, but the company is not alone. There are hundreds of other companies in the district committed to the regeneration of post-consumer materials. These include the Valfilo spinning mill, which produces carded yarn from recycled materials; the Intespra wool mill, which manufactures fabrics; the Manifattura Maiano, which processes textile waste to obtain insulation for sustainable construction; and startups such as Rifò, founded last year by Niccolò Cipriani, producing scarves and hats from recycled wool.
For Tesi and his colleagues, using waste materials was once embarrassing, but now they do it with pride: “The fashion industry will be saved from an unsustainable production model only if it follows Prato’s example,” Tesi says.
In the age of conscious consumption, all major brands are facing the challenge of recycling and integrating eco-sustainable products into their collections. But they have a long way to go to reverse the wasteful trend caused by unsustainable industrial practices. “It is necessary to completely revolutionize production systems, and to think about what comes after the end of a garment’s life,” Tesi says.
Last year, he also started making clothes in collaboration with the Brunelleschi Institute of Art, based on the principles of eco-design. These garments are designed to be easily repaired and regenerated, with cotton seams, non-toxic colors and natural fabrics, and without thermoadhesives or synthetic materials, which can compromise recycling. This is the idea behind international movements such as Fashion Revolution or Fashion for Good, platforms dedicated to triggering change in one of the most polluting sectors of manufacturing, starting with technologies and models that are at home in Prato.
This article is being published as part of Earth Beats, an international and collaborative initiative gathering 18 news media outlets from around the world to focus on solutions to waste and pollution.